How to Play Mexican Train Dominoes

How to play Mexican train dominoes

Alison Czinkota / The Spruce 

Despite the name, Mexican Train Dominoes, also known simply as Trains, is primarily played in the United States. One of the most popular domino games, it can be played with two to 14 players, so no matter how big or small your family, everyone can participate. Here is a complete set of rules for this fun game. 

Tip:

There are no "official" set of rules for Mexican Train Dominoes, as there are many slight variations, depending on the source. Our recommended rules are based on those often used in competitive tournament play.

Game Requirements

  • Players: Best with four to eight players
  • Equipment: Typically, Mexican Train Dominoes is played with a standard set of double-12 (12-12) dominoes with 91 dominoes, but the size of the set can be adjusted depending on the number of players. Each player also needs a marker, such as a penny. One additional marker is also needed. A "station" to set in the middle of the table is optional and may be included in commercial game sets. Finally, you will need a pencil and paper to use as a score pad.
  • Goal: The goal of Mexican Train is to be the first player to lay down all of your dominoes in each round, and earning the overall smallest point total when all rounds are completed.

How to Play Mexican Train Dominoes

Set Up the Game

Choose a set of dominoes appropriate for the number of players:

  • For 2 to 3 players, use a double-9 (9-9) set; each player takes eight dominoes.
  • For 4 to 6 players, use a double-12( 12-12) set; each player takes 12 dominoes.
  • For 7 to 8 players, use a double-12 (12-12) set; each player takes 10 dominoes.
  •  For 9 to12 players, use a double-15 (15-15) set; each player takes 11 dominoes.
  •  For 13 to 14 players, use a double-18 (18-18) set; each player takes 11 dominoes.

Find the double domino to serve as the "engine" for the game. This double domino will be the highest double domino in the set being used. For example, if you are playing with a 12-12 set (recommended for 4 to 8 players), the initial engine will be the 12-12 domino.

Turn all the rest of the dominoes face down on the playing table and shuffle them thoroughly.

Tip

Game sets sold commercially may have a center hub that is used as the "roundhouse" or "station" from which the trains will be built. This hub will have a fitting where the double domino is placed. If playing without this hub, simply use the double domino itself as the roundhouse.

Draw Dominoes

All players simultaneously draw their dominoes without showing the other players. The number of dominoes drawn will depend on the number of players in the game.

Each player then stands their dominoes on edge so that they can see the faces but their opponents cannot. The remaining dominoes are left on the table face down. This supply is known as the boneyard.

Begin Play

To determine the beginning player, each player draws a single domino from the boneyard. The domino with the highest spot (pip) total designates the beginning player.

Player #1 begins play by building a string of dominoes out from the engine, beginning with a domino that has a pip count matching the engine domino. Each domino in the string must be played so the pip-counts match the exposed end of the preceding domino.

If a player has no play, they must draw a domino from the bone pile. If it matches the engine's pip count, it may be played immediately.

Play now continues clockwise, with each subsequent player attempting to build a drain extending out from the engine. Players unable to start their train must draw a domino from the bone pile (it may be played immediately if its pip count matches the engine domino).

Play Second Round

In the second turn around the playing table, each player must attempt to play another domino. There are several possible plays here. The player may:

  • Play a domino that matches the pip-count of the exposed half of the previous domino played on their own train. For example, if player #1 has played a 12-5 domino in the first round, they can now play a domino that has 5 pips on the end of their train. If player #1 has a double domino matching the exposed pip-count, it is played crosswise (perpendicular) across the exposed half of the previous domino.
  • If player #1 has no possible play on their own train, they may alternately start the "Mexican Train" if they have another domino that matches the pip-count of the central engine. This new Mexican train is a "public" train that is free for all players to play on for the duration of the game.
  • If player #1 has no play, they must draw one domino from the bone pile. If its spot count matches the open end of the player's train, it may be placed immediately. If not, player #1 places a marker at the end of their train, signifying that the train is open for other players to play on. Player #1's train will now remain free to use by other players until such time as they can once again play on their own train. At this time, the marker can be removed, rendering the train protected from other players again.

Play now proceeds to player #2 and subsequent players, who have the same options:

  • Play a domino with a spot count that matches the spot count exposed at the end of their own train.
  • Start the Mexican Train, if it has not already been started.
  • Play a domino on another player's train that has been opened to public use with a marker.
  • If no play is possible, the player must draw a domino and place a marker at the end of their own train, signifying that it is a public train that other players can play on. This train remains public until such time as the player can again play a domino on their own train.

Playing Doubles

If a player has a double domino that matches the exposed end of a train, the player announces "double" and immediately places the domino crosswise across the exposed end of the train. The player must then play a second domino on any eligible train—either fulfilling their own double or playing a domino elsewhere on the board.

If the exposed double tile is not "answered" by the player who played it, it MUST be answered by one of the subsequent players before a domino can be played anywhere else. When a player cannot answer a double, the player must draw a domino from the bone pile AND place the marker at the end of their train, rendering it public.

End the First Round

Round #1 ends when any player plays the last domino in their hand. Immediately, the other players total up the pips on the dominoes still held in their hand. One player designated as the scorekeeper writes down the score of all players—whoever has the low count has won the round.

Play Additional Rounds

Play continues with subsequent rounds, with the engine domino "counting down" to each successively lower double domino: double-11, double-10, double-9, etc. The rules for each round are exactly the same as for the first game, with point totals tallied and added into each player's running score at the end of each round.

End the Game

When a full round has been played with the final double domino (the 0-0) serving as the engine, the points for all rounds are totaled, and the player with the lower overall point total declared the winner of the game.

Rule Variations

There are a number of rule variations that are often used:

  • For a longer game, Mexican Train Dominoes is sometimes played with only a single domino played in the first round, rather than a chain of dominoes. Or, this rule is sometimes used when players wish to play a single short game consisting of a single round.
  • In some versions, a player who plays a double must fulfill their own double domino, rather than playing the second domino anywhere on the board. If they have no matching domino, they must draw from the bone pile and place a marker at the end of their train, rendering it public. If the drawn domino matches an eligible train, it may be played immediately.
  • In another rule variation, a double domino must be answered by a "chicken foot"—placing three dominos on both ends and on the center of the double domino. In other words, answering a double-6 domino requires a player to have three dominoes with 6-pip denominations.
  • Some games designate the double-0 (0-0) domino as counting for 25 or 50 points, making it a domino that you very much want to avoid holding in your hand at the end of the game.